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  • Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from The Chronicles of Japan to The Tale of the Heike
  • Michael Watson
Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from The Chronicles of Japan to The Tale of the Heike. By David T. Bialock. Stanford University Press, 2007. 488 pages. Hardcover $67.00.

This important study challenges long-held assumptions about premodern Japanese culture. It is a work of great scholarship that makes high demands of readers, but well repays the effort.

In chapters 1 through 3, David T. Bialock sets out to overturn conventional views about the role played by Daoist and yin-yang beliefs and practices in the Nara and early Heian periods, arguing that scholarship has greatly underestimated their contribution to the formation of Japanese culture, and in particular to what he calls "the representation of royal authority." Competing ritual practices—Buddhism, Confucianism, and "Shinto"—were ultimately to absorb Daoism and yin-yang, yet as Bialock convincingly demonstrates, these two related sets of ideas and practices had a distinct influence in early Japan. Ideas, technical terms, and motifs from Daoism and yin-yang pervade writings of the period, from the Man'yōshū to Nihon ryōiki, but traces can be seen in many areas of the new centralized state, from court ritual, divination, prognostications, timekeeping, and imperial architecture to techniques for longevity. The two did not always work in tandem. There was "an ambiguous pull" (p. 108) between the image of a politically active "sage emperor" in the Daoist tradition and one of a sovereign hemmed in by pollution taboos, needing the advice and protection of yin-yang masters against malign spirits, plague deities, and an ever-increasing number of other spiritual threats.

Chapter 4 ("Royalizing the Realm and the Ritualization of Violence") examines how the early chronicles represent the subjugation of those who resisted centralizing forces and asks how the image of a sage emperor can be reconciled with the violence of suppression. Bialock discusses one of the best-known episodes in Nihon shoki and Kojiki, the story of Yamato Takeru and his missions of conquest against the Kumaso, Emishi, and the country of Izumo. This is the kind of "compare and contrast" exercise [End Page 384] that is assigned often enough to undergraduates studying the works in translation, but Bialock's analysis is far-reaching and subtle, going well beyond a reading in which Yamato Takeru is simply a scapegoat for the state's use of violence, or one in which state violence is considered to have been displaced to the realm of myth. Bialock argues that Nihon shoki and Kojiki, through different but complementary narrative strategies, were both able to find ways of legitimizing the emperor's authority. Taking up another example, he notes that in the Kojiki account of Jinmu's reign, the sovereign orders the vanquished Kume to perform a song and dance at a banquet, reenacting their defeat. This is sometimes held to represent "a relatively benign ritual transfer of power to the center" (p. 124), but Bialock questions whether this was really the case. One reason that Kojiki did not continue to be read to the same extent as Nihon shoki was, he concludes, its ambivalence towards the representation of violence: passages portraying the imposition of imperial authority as peaceful contrast with those that depict violent conquest and subjugation in the starkest terms.

Bialock introduces a number of unusual terms. One is "ambulation," referring to the circuitous movement in imperial tours of inspection. The focus of his interest, however, is the implications of ambulatory expressions in cases that do not describe a royal progress. The Hitachi fudoki describes Yamato Takeru not, as Kojiki does, in terms of a wandering exile, but—like a representative of the Yamato court itself—as extending the court's authority over new lands. Bialock sees a similarity in a much later text, the medieval war tale Hōgen monogatari. The captured Minamoto warrior Tametomo makes a speech as he is being taken in exile to Tsukushi, boasting how he is being as well treated as a "virtuous sovereign" (jūzen teiō), carried in a litter escorted by guards and fed...


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